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August 15, 2006

Life aboard a submarine

Midships hatch sm.jpg

When I first reported aboard the USS Blueback and peered down the midships hatch into my new home, I had not yet been promoted to petty officer -- and was a non-qual to boot -- which meant I was lower than whale shit in the enlisted hierarchy.

Actually, a sailor who hadn't earned his submarine dolphins wasn't just a non-qual; he was known, with contempt, as a "non-qual puke," until his fellow submariners tacked the pins on following the successful completion of the months-long learning process, culminating in an examination by a board of senior enlisteds who grilled the candidate on his knowledge of the boat from stem to stern -- or torpedo tube to aft maneuvering room.

The theory was that all crewmen must be able in an emergency to operate equipment unrelated to their rating, in order to save the sub. So a cook had to know how to start the diesel engines, and a radioman must be able to secure flooding in the torpedo room and begin pumping it dry.

One question that I remember from my qual board was, "You're a molecule of air that's just been sucked through the snorkel's head-valve and into the boat. Trace your path through the submarine until you're exhausted overboard after being used in the main engines."

And, no, I don't remember the answer.

The junior guys were constantly crawling around the outboard spaces and below the deckplates with piping tabs in hand, tracing major hydraulic, air and electrical systems, memorizing the location of valves and procedures required to isolate different subsystems, before collapsing into their rack for a little shut-eye before going back on watch.

If the senior enlisteds spotted a non-qual trying to unobtrusively hide in the back of the crew's mess to see a few minutes of the night's movie, there'd be a call for "all non-qual pukes to get the hell out and hit the books!"

Rack time on a sub 1.jpg

Needless to say, non-quals didn't enjoy the best living conditions, either. My first year aboard ship was spent living in the torpedo room, sleeping in the open on the top level above the MK-48 shipkillers. Sheets of plywood were laid over the upper torpedo stowage racks, with aluminum racks and matresses on top.

Rack time on a sub 2.jpg

Although it was often noisy and rarely dark, it had the advantage of being well ventilated and cool, with ventilation ducts overhead -- the better to keep away the funk of the guys bunking in close proximity.

Life in the topedo rm.jpg

And, although we didn't enjoy the privacy of the guys who were in the midships berthing area, with their coffin-sized bunks, at least we had plenty of headroom, enough to sit up and read while the torpedos mates were maintaining the weapons down below. As a bonus, we could hang our gear from the pipes and valves overhead, too.

Posted by Mike Lief at August 15, 2006 12:59 PM | TrackBack


Mike, I have to say that during my career on submarines I was spoiled. I got to my 1st boat as a 3rd class, and it was one of the 41 For Freedom girls, so there was no hot racking.

I was even able to choose a middle rack, even though it was in the main berthing passage. The "ghetto" as we called it. When I made second and had some time on the pond, I was able to make it out to the outboard bunks, into "sleepy hollow".

Nukes and other engineering types to the port, forward types to the starboard.The missile weenies had their own berthing in the mouse house, and there was a three man funk room in the torpedo room.

Then I went to the T-Hulls, and they were floating hotels. 14 - 9 man bunk rooms outboard the missile tubes in missile 3rd level (there are 4 levels), with each bunk having a bunk pan, a small foot locker, a 12" X 12" X 2.5' personal drawer, and a common locker for hanging uniforms.

I could pack all my gear for a 112 day patrol, three days of civy clothes, a full case of soda, enough food to substitute every third meal if the cooks sucked, and more geedunk than I could possibly eat or give away to my fellow watchstanders to help pass the time.

So, yes, I was a spoiled boomer puke - BUT, I always chastised the young'uns when they complained about lack of space (and they did - can you believe it?), because I knew there were guys who had it worse than me.

Actually, truth be told, I always felt kinda guilty about all the space I had. I felt like I never had the "true" submarine experience. That, and being a Catholic always helps the guilt along. Maybe when I die, and I join my shipmates on Eternal Patrol, there'll be a diesel boat rack waiting for me in Heaven...

Posted by: Sean at August 16, 2006 03:53 PM

You nuke guys were living the life of Riley, with your unlimited showers and functioning air conditioning!

While our diesel boat was a quiet and deadly adversary, she often had mechanical problems with some of her ancilliary systems, sometimes reducing our weekly showers to every other week -- or worse.

Which was exacerbated by temps in the 100s to 120s (or even 130s!) when the A/C went on the fritz.

And you haven't lived until you've experienced a fire and flooding while submerged, with a failure of the engine room bilge pump, leading to a bucket brigade passing five-gallon buckets from the engineering spaces, through the crew's mess, up a ladder into the officers' wardroom, and into the head, to be emptied into the toilet and then pumped overboard via the sanitary tanks.

Ahh, the romance and adventure of a life at sea.

Posted by: Mike Lief at August 16, 2006 10:46 PM

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